[eBook] Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot Author Mark Vanhoenacker – Vansonphu.com

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot Lift Ive been asleep in a small, windowless room, a room so dark its as if Im below the waterline of a ship My head is near the wall Through the wall comes the sound of steady rushing, the sense of numberless particles slipping past, as water rounds a stone in a stream, but faster andsmoothly, as if the vessel parts its medium without touch Im alone Im in a blue sleeping bag, in blue pajamas that I unwrapped on Christmas morning several years ago and many thousands of miles from here There is a gentle swell to the room, a rhythm of rolling The wall of the room is curved it rises and bends up over the narrow bed It is the hull of aWhen someone Ive just met at a dinner or a party learns that Im a pilot, he or she often asks me about my work These questions typically relate to a technical aspect of airplanes, or to a view or a noise encountered on a recent flight Sometimes Im asked where I fly, and which of these cities I love best Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies Is flying something I have always wanted to do Have Iever seen anything up there that I cannot explain And do I remember my first flight I like these questions They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think These questions remind me that while airplanes have overturned many of our older sensibilities, a deeper part of our imagination lingers and still sparks in the former realm, among ancient, even atavistic, ideas of distance and place, migrations and the sky Flight, like any great love, is both a liberation and a return Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa In the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions after long ages of exile and dreamsIve been asleep in a small, windowless room, a room so dark its as if Im below the waterline of a ship My head is near the wall Through the wall comes the sound of steady rushing, the sense of numberless particles slipping past, as water rounds a stone in a stream, but faster andsmoothly, as if the vessel parts its medium without touch Im alone Im in a blue sleeping bag, in blue pajamas that I unwrapped on Christmas morning several years ago and many thousands of miles from here There is a gentle swell to the room, a rhythm of rolling The wall of the room is curved it rises and bends up over the narrow bed It is the hull of aWhen someone Ive just met at a dinner or a party learns that Im a pilot, he or she often asks me about my work These questions typically relate to a technical aspect of airplanes, or to a view or a noise encountered on a recent flight Sometimes Im asked where I fly, and which of these cities I love best Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies Is flying something I have always wanted to do Have Iever seen anything up there that I cannot explain And do I remember my first flight I like these questions They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think These questions remind me that while airplanes have overturned many of our older sensibilities, a deeper part of our imagination lingers and still sparks in the former realm, among ancient, even atavistic, ideas of distance and place, migrations and the sky Flight, like any great love, is both a liberation and a return Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa In the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space When aviation began, it was worth watching for its own sake it was entertainment, as it still is for many children on their early encounters with it Many of my friends who are pilots describe airplanes as the first thing they loved about the world When I was a child I used to assemble model airplanes and hang them in my bedroom, under a ceiling scattered with glow in the dark stars, until the day skies were hardly less busy than Heathrows, and at night the outlines of the dark jets crossed against the indoorconstellationsI looked forward to each of my familys occasional airplane trips with an enthusiasm that rarely had much to do with wherever we were going I spent most of my time at Disney World awaiting the moment we would board again the magical vessel that had brought us there At school nearly all my science projects were variations on an aerial theme I made a hot air balloon from paper, and sanded wings of balsa wood that jumped excitedly in the slipstream from a hairdryer, as simply as if it were not air but electricity that had been made to flow across them The first phone call I ever received from someone other than a friend or relative came when I was thirteen My mom passed me the telephone with a smile, telling me that a vice president from Boeing had asked to speak with me He had received my letter requesting a videotape of ain flight, to show as part of a science project about that airplane He was happy to help he wished only to know whether I wanted myto fly inVHSor Betamax format I am the only pilot in my family But all the same, I feel that imaginatively, at least, airplanes and flying were never far from home My father was completely enthralled by airplanesthe result of his front row seat on the portion of the Second World War that took place in the skies above his childhood home in West Flanders He learned the shapes of the aircraft and the sounds of their engines The thousands of planes in the sky were too much competition for my schoolbooks, he later wrote In the s, he left Belgium towork as a missionary in the Belgian Congo, where he first flew in a small airplane Then he sailed to Brazil, where in the s he was one of surely not very many priests with a subscription to Aviation Weekmagazine Finally he flew to America, where he met my mother, went to business school, and worked as a manager in mental health services Airplanes fill his old notes and slides My mother, born under the quieter skies of rural Pennsylvania, worked as a speech therapist and had no particular interest in aviation Yet I feel she was the one who best understood my attachment to the less tangible joys of flight the old romance of all journeys, which she gave to my brother and me in the form of stories like Stuart Littleand The Hobbit,but also a sense of what we see from above or far awaythe gift, the destination, that flying makes not of a distant place but of our home Her favorite hymn was For the Beauty of the Earth, a title, at least, that we agreed might be worth printing on the inside of airplane window blinds My brother is not a pilot His love is not for airplanes but for bicycles His basement is full of bikes that are works in progress, that hes designing and assembling from far gathered parts, for me or for a grateful friend When it comes to his bike frames, he is as obsessed with lightness as any aeronautical engineer He likes to make and fix bikes eventhan he likes to ride them, I think If I see my brother working on one of his two wheeled creations, or notice that hes reading about bikes on his computer while I am next to him on the couch reading about airplanes, I may remember that the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, and that their skyfaring skills began with wheels, a heritage that suddenly becomes clear when you look again at their early airplanes When I see pictures of such planes I think, if I had to assemble anything that looked like this, I would start by calling on the skills of my brothereven though there was the time I got him in trouble with our parents for skipping his chores, and so he taped firecrackers to one of my model airplanes and lit the fuses and waited just the right number of seconds beforethrowing the model from an upstairs window, in a long arc over the backyard As a teenager I took a few flying lessons I thought that I might one day fly small airplanes as a hobby, on weekend mornings, an aside to some other career But I dont remember having a clear wish to become an airline pilot No one at school suggested the career to me No pilots lived in our neighborhood I dont know if there were any commercial pilots at all in our small town in western Massachusetts, which was some distance from any major airport My dad was an example of someone who enjoyed airplanes whenever he encountered them, but who had decided not to make them his lifes work I think the main reason I didnt decide earlier to become a pilot, though, is because I believed that something I wanted so much could never be practical, almost by definition In high school I spent my earnings from a paper route and restaurant jobs on summer homestay programs abroad, in Japan and Mexico After high school I stayed in New England for college but also studied in Belgium, briefly reversing the journey my father had made After college I went to Britain to study African history, so that I could live in Britain and, I hoped, in Kenya I left that degree program when I finally realized that I wanted to become a pilot To repay my student loans and save the money I expected to need for flight training, I took a job in Boston, in thefieldmanagement consultingthatI thought would require me to fly most often In high school I certainly wanted to see Japan and Mexico, andto study Japanese and Spanish But really, what attracted me most to such adventures was the scale of the airplane journeys they required It was the possibility of flight that most drew me to far off summer travels, to degree programs in two distant lands, to the start of the most literally high flying career I could find in the business world, and at lastbecause none of even those endeavors got me airborne nearly often enoughto a career as a pilot When I was ready to start my flight training, I decided to return toBritain I liked many aspects of the countrys historic relationship with aviation, its deep tradition of air links with the whole world, and the fact that even some of the shortest flights from Britain are to places so very different from it And, not least, I liked the idea of living near the good friends Id made as a postgraduate there I began to fly commercially when I was twenty nine I first flew the Airbus A series airliners, a family of narrow bodied jets used on short to medium distance flights, on routes all around Europe Id be woken by an alarm in the am darkness of Helsinki or Warsaw or Bucharest or Istanbul, and there would be a brief bleary moment, in the hotel room whose shape and layout Id already forgotten in the hours since Id switched off the light, when Id ask myself if Id only been dreaming that I became a pilot Then I would imagine the day of flying ahead, crossing back and forth in the skies of Europe, almost as excitedly as if it was my first day I now fly a larger airplane, the BoeingOn longer flights we carry additional pilots so that each of us can take a legally prescribed break, a time to sleep and dream, perhaps, while Kazakhstan or Brazil or the Sahara rolls steadily under the line of the wing Frequent travelers, in the first hours or days of a trip, may be familiar with the experience of jet lag or a hotel wake up call summoning them from the heart of night journeys they would otherwise have forgotten Pilots are often woken at unusual points in their sleep cycles and perhaps, too, the anonymity and nearly perfect darkness of the pilots bunk form a particularly clean slate for the imagination Whatever the reason, I now associate going to work with dreaming, or at least, with dreams recalled only because I am in the sky A chime sounds in the darkness of the s bunk My break is overI feel for the switch that turns on a pale yellow beam I change into myuniform, which has been hanging on a plastic peg for something like , miles I open the door that leads from the bunk to the cockpit Even when I know its comingand its frequently hard to know, depending as it does on the season, the route, the time, and the placethe brightness always catches me off guard The cockpit beyond the bunk is blasted with a directionless daylight so pure and overwhelming, so alien to the darkness I left it in hours ago and to the gloom of the bunk, that it is like a new sense As my eyes adjust, I look forward through the cockpit windows At this moment its the light itself, rather than what it falls upon,that is the essential feature of the earth What the light fallsupon is the Sea of Japan, and far across this water, on the snowcapped peaks of the island nation we are approaching The blueness of the sea is as perfect as the sky it reflects It is as if we are slowly descending over the surface of a blue star, as if all other blues are to be mined or diluted from this one As I move forward in the cockpit to my seat on the right side of it, I think briefly back to the trip I made to Japan as a teenager, about two decades ago, and to the city this plane left only yesterday, though yesterdayisnt quite the right word for what preceded a night that hardly deserves the name, so quickly was it undone by our high latitudes and eastward speed I remember that I had an ordinary morning in the city I went to the airport in the afternoon Now that day has turned away into the past, and the city, London, lies well beyond the curve of the planet As I fasten my seat belt I remember how we started the engines yesterday How the sudden and auspicious hush fell in the cockpitas the airflow for the air conditioning units was diverted howair alone began to spin the enormous techno petals of the fans, spin them and spin them, faster and faster, until fuel and firewere added, and each engine woke with a low rumble that grew to a smooth and unmistakable roarthe signature of one of our ages most perfect means of purifying and directing physical power In legal terms a journey begins when an aircraft moves under its own power for the purpose of flight I remember the aircraft that moved ahead of us for this purpose and lifted ahead of us into the London rain As that preceding aircraft taxied into position its engines launched rippling gales that raced visibly over the wet runway, as if from some greatly speeded up video recording of the windswept surface of a pond When takeoff thrustwas setthe engines heaved this water up in huge gusting night gray cones, new clouds cast briefly skyward I remember our own takeoff roll, an experience that repetition hasnt dulled the unfurling carpet of guiding lights that say here,the voice of the controller that says now the sense, in the first seconds after the engines reach their assigned power and we begin to roll forward, that this is only a curious kind of driving down an equally curious road But with speed comes the transition, the gathering sense that the wheels matter less, and the mechanisms that work on the airthe control surfaceson the wings and the tail We feel the airplanes dawning life in the air clearly through the controls, and with each passing second the jets presence on the ground becomesincidental to how we direct its motion Yesterday we were flying on the earth, long before we left it On every takeoff there is a speed known as VBefore this speed we have enough room left ahead of us on the runway to stop the takeoff After this speed we may not Thus committed toflight, we continued for some time along the ground, gathering stillspeed to the vessel A few long seconds after V the jet reached its next milestone of velocity and the captain called Rotate As the lights of the runway started to alternate red and white to indicate its approaching end, as the four rivers of power that summed to nearly a quarter of a million pounds of thrust unfurled over the runway behind us, I lifted the nose As if we had only pulled out of a driveway, I turned right, toward Tokyo London, then, was on my side of the cockpit The city grew bigger before it became smaller From above, still climbing, you realize that this is how a city becomes its own map, how a place becomes whole before your eyes, how from an airplane the idea of a city and the image of a city itself can overlay each other so perfectly that its no longer possible to distinguish between them We followed Londons river, that led the vessels of a former age from their docks to the world, as far as the North Sea Then the sea turned, and Denmark, Sweden, Finland passed beneath us, and night fellthe night that both began and ended over Russia Now Im in the new days blue northwest of Japan, waiting for Tokyo to rise as simply as the morning I settle myself into my sheepskin covered seat and my particular position above the planet I blink in the sun, check the distance of my hands and feet from the controls, put on a headset, adjust the microphone I say good morning to my colleagues, in the half ironic sense that long haul pilots will know well, that means, on a light scrambling journey, I need a minute to be sure where it is morning, and for whomwhether for me, or the passengers, or the place below us on the earth, or perhaps at our destination I ask for a cup of tea My colleagues update me on the hours I was absent I check the computers, the fuel gauges Small, steady green digits show our expected landing time in Tokyo, about an hour from now This is expressed in Greenwich Mean Time In Greenwich it is still yesterday Another display shows the remaining nautical miles of flight, a number that drops about one mile every seven seconds It is counting down to the largest city that has ever existedA New York Times Notable Book A Best Book of the Year San Francisco Chronicle The Economist GQ Kirkus ReviewsSuperb An elegant, nonlinear reflection on how flying on a commercial airlinereven while painfully folded into a seat in coachcan lift the soul The New York Times Book ReviewA beautifully observed collection of details, scenes, emotions and facts from the world above the world The Economist Remarkable Skyfaring lifts the thoughts and spirits James Fallows, The AtlanticMarvelously literate Vanhoenackercan put one in mind of Henry James A big hearted book The New York Times Gorgeous and captivating Skyfaring artfully demystifies the fascinating technical aspects of commercial flight while delivering poetic insights straight from the cockpit San Francisco ChronicleMasterly, beautifully written The Times Literary Supplement Vanhoenacker is an exceptionally lucid and philosophically minded writer The Wall Street Journal Not since Antoine de Saint Exuprys classic Vol de Nuithas there been such a fantastic book about flying Skyfaringtakes the genre to a whole new level Cond Nast Traveller Imagine Henry David Thoreau reflecting on the wonders of the lights of Oman as seen from the cockpit of a , and you begin to have something of the fresh magic of this exceptional debut Pico Iyer, author of The Man Within My Head Riveting Vanhoenacker paints humanity seen from the aviators perch, woven together with a fascinating laymans account of the mechanics of flight He invokes philosophers, music, history, and his own past and family to convey the sense of discovery and disorientation that he feels crisscrossing the globe The Times London A love letter to flight Vanhoenacker slips easily between poetic meditation into the nature of travel and technical explanations of the mechanisms of the , and I found all of it fascinating It is a delight to encounter someone so unabashedly enad of the romance of his profession Emily St John Mandel, The Millions A revelatory work of observation, thought, and expression James Fallows, author of China Airborne Flying, a century after Kitty Hawk, can seem both scary and banal, the realm of underwear bombers and miniature mouthwashes, but Vanhoenacker recovers its metaphysics The New Yorker Vanhoenackers passionate and beautifully written book will remind even the most jaded traveller of the wonder of flight The Sunday Times UK A masterpiece of time, distance, palm trees, frosty mornings, lofty ambition and self effacing charm Monocle Apilot with a poetic streak The writing makes flying feel as amazing at it really is Wired A description of what its like to fly by a commercial pilot who is also a master prose stylist and a deeply sensitive human being This couldnt behighly recommended Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life Vanhoenacker makes flying wondrous again London Evening Standard Skyfaring never loses sight of how beautiful it is to soar above the clouds Vanhoenackers writing is fluid and elegant The New Statesman UK An author of real distinction with a genuinely poetic sensibility as well as a memorable turn of phrase The Spectator Vanhoenacker makes flying wondrous again London Evening Standard A skilful meditation on the glories of traversing the earth at the helm of mankinds greatest technological achievement Youll quickly find yourself in thrall to Vanhoenackers marvellous prose GQ UK Through prose as passionate and erudite as it is informative, Vanhoenacker describes not merely the mechanical workings of flight, but will rekindle, in those who care to listen, a lost appreciation for the marvel of global air travel Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential



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